The Universal Language of Music and the Conflict in Armenia

Of the many global events keeping me up at night, I’m a bit ashamed to admit that the conflict in Armenia has not been one.

Don’t get me wrong, I read the news, I was aware that a long-simmering conflict had erupted in a part of the world to which I have little connection, but with everything else seemingly on fire around me, I didn’t stop to absorb the scale and scope of the human tragedy currently underway. So why, now, am I awake, googling news stories, ordering books like “A Brief History of Armenia and Azerbaijan: Volume 4”, and fighting back tears?

The cello. What else?

In a video posted on his YouTube page on Oct 12, 2020, Sevak Avanesyan sits alone with his cello in the ruin of a recently bombed church in Shushi, a city in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. He doesn’t speak, just lifts his bow and begins playing. The melody is new to me, but that’s only because I’m unfamiliar with Armenian folk music. The young man whose face reflects intense pain and heartbreak as he plays is unknown to me, but that’s only because I don’t follow the "Young Virtuosos" of AMAA (Armenian Missionary Association of America). I learned later that he is the youngest ever graduate of the Royal Conservatory of age 13. The background looks like a movie set and I can’t tell what he is sitting on. I’m worried he will collapse into the rubble that surrounds him, that another bomb will arrive as he plays. I have a fleeting thought (hope, really) that this whole thing is shot in front of a greenscreen, in a safe studio. But I know that, in so many - too many - places, nowhere is truly safe.

Throughout history, cellists have used their artistry (and their cello) as first responders to shine a beacon of light during times of great need.

There is a long tradition of cellists offering respite and beauty through music in times of emotion and turmoil. This history of the cello is closely aligned with the triumphs and tragedies of humanity; they consoled prisoners in Nazi-occupied Germany, called for peace in the face of fascism, celebrated freedom for Eastern Berliners, and memorialized those that perished in acts of terrorism at Ground Zero - and now, call attention to a ruined place of worship and beauty, amid a true crisis.

None of these details matter in the moment, though, as I listen to him play. I’m completely swept into the emotion of the music. There’s a language here that only music knows - the language of pain and heartache and hope and elation - that cuts through insignificant barriers like geography and religion and culture. Music is the language that can adequately respond to situations where words fail - in tragedy and in triumph. It has a way of not letting you look away from the atrocities which are somehow easier to ignore otherwise. You must look directly at it because you’re connected on a human level that doesn’t accept less than that.

"music is amazing because it can humanize a conflict in a way that news coverage simply cannot..."

I’m not sure what my ultimate point is here. Maybe that music is amazing because it can humanize a conflict in a way that news coverage simply cannot. Maybe I’m just expressing gratitude that music exists as a language to express inexpressible heartache, grief, and hope. Maybe I’m amazed that I live in a time where I can watch a cellist playing alone in a ruined building halfway around the world, over the internet. Maybe it’s something else. I do know that I’ll be up late again tonight thinking about it, though.

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